Creepy in fantasy


On a bit of a lark, this weekend, I sat down with my children to watch Jim Henson’s the Labyrinth. When I was a kid, I loved that movie, and even though I haven’t seen it since I threw out my VCR, I still love it. No, the acting isn’t great, but it’s alright. David Bowie’s character is so hard-core 80’s that it would be funny, if it didn’t scare the hell out of me. Okay, it doesn’t actually scare the hell out of me, but the movie IS creepy. The whole thing. It’s not horror movie scary, it just makes you feel vaguely uncomfortable.

For the entire movie, I sat there wondering how he does that. Labyrinth isn’t even the best example of a creepy as heck fantasy by Jim Henson. The Dark Crystal comes to mind. If you didn’t think it was creepy, then you probably didn’t see it, and if you did see it, right now you’re saying Hmmmmmmm Hmmmmm in that high pitched voice. What about Jim Henson’s the Story Teller? If you’ve seen those, I’ll bet the hair on the back of your neck is already standing up. If you haven’t seen them, check them out.

That guy is the master of making fantasy feel uncomfortable. I’m not saying its a requirement that fantasy flex a little horror muscle, but in my case, it’s what the story is missing. I have written a world and a situation where a little bit of creepy would give the story the punch it needs to move it from a pretty good tale, to a damn good book. What Jim Henson does is makes the world, the setting, dark and unnerving, and the characters light and even funny. It’s a good trick because it makes the characters, even the bad guys, engaging and likable in spite of the circumstances. Unfortunately, most of the effect Jim Henson gets comes from the visuals, and so there’s not much by way of technique to lift directly. Instead, I have to figure out a way to make the setting vaguely unsettling with words.

The series that comes into my mind as having something like the ‘feel’ I’m going for is the Phillip Pullman series His Dark Materials. It was more dark than creepy, but it had its moments. I listened to this one on Audio Book a few years ago now, and so I don’t recall quite how he did it. Really though, my book is going to need to have it’s own feel, and I suppose I know what it needs to look like, but I still lack the skill to pull it off. Anyhow, this is one more thing to work on when I start the re-write, and it’s going to require a lot of research (reading). Any suggestions?

Also, I’m not done with this topic. It will be rolling around in my mind quite a lot before this is all said and done.

photo credit: Wharlock DOF via photopin (license)


Where’s Waldo?

How many characters should I have?

This question borders on stupid, really, the answer is obvious: As many as it takes to tell the story.

Okay, great, as many as it takes, got it… How many you reckon that is?

For someone like me, these questions don’t seem stupid, nor does the obvious answer help. In my mind these are major issues. As a reader it’s easy to look at a huge epic fantasy series with dozens of main characters and think: “I am NOT going to to that” – or – “I totally want to do that”. I’m in more of the where’s Waldo? camp. That is, I really prefer to know who the main character is within a chapter or two. I get frustrated at stories where I’ve got to re-read a chapter just to meet and remember all of the characters who seem equally important. Now, it’s not that I think these are badly done, it’s that I don’t like them. From that perspective, I’m going to focus on writing a story where there are fewer characters to deal with.

When I started on my current project, I tried to keep the number of characters to an absolute minimum. This was a problem. Mainly because you’ve got to start with enough people to have dialogue and also conflict, even if it’s something as simple as a stolen horse. Someone’s got to do it and ideally there will be at least a couple of others to talk about it. Right off the bat that’s 3 people, and I haven’t even gotten the main character out of his village yet. Perhaps it’ll take a few more people to get him down the road. Turns out my minimalist ideal wasn’t an approach that would work with the story I’m writing, and after thinking about it starting off with 3 seems like a good rule of thumb.

So, what was my solution to keep the number of characters to something I felt comfortable with? Well, first of all the story is a 3rd person limited, with a focus on two specific characters with the idea that I’m going to stick with that one sub-plot. The second bit is that I’m trying to keep the number of characters in any given scene in the range of 3-4, more than that is hard anyhow (not impossible, of course, just hard). Thirdly, and most importantly, I only add in characters who are absolutely essential to the scene. The last part is that I avoid naming characters who aren’t significant to the story as a whole. So, a character might be essential for a scene, but doesn’t get a name because she isn’t essential to the larger story. This category of character is only given a one or two word description instead of a proper name – this is a super common approach, but I’m taking it a little further than you usually see it in that these names are how the main characters think about them and apply to people that would usually get a name.

These are tricks I’ve seen in tons of other stories, and so I don’t know that it qualifies as advice, or even gets to the point, but this is how I’m approaching my story. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the subject at some point.

Made up names

On my first project, not a fantasy, now long dead – and good riddance, I wanted the names of people and places to be foreign. I mean, it’s not necessary for them to be, plenty of fantasies use regular or regular-like English names, and those work just fine. But that’s not how I wanted to approach it, and maybe that’s stupid, but it’s the writer’s prerogative right? So, for that first project I slammed together a bunch of letters and called them names. The result was a bit of text that was unreadable to anybody and had no consistency nor did it make the world feel like the world was full of unique cultures, which is what I wanted. I feel like I’ve read fantasies where the approach was to just put together some random letters until a name was achieved, and in those cases, I wish they’d just used regular English names.

When I started my current project, I still wanted to use names that weren’t like English. So, I started researching, with two goals in mind 1: Develop a language with just enough depth to let me name things. 2: Make sure that language follows conventions easily recognizable and readable to an English speaker. I spent hours, well weeks and weeks really, learning about language. Naturally, I also spent a lot of time studying the famousest of constructed languages, trying to learn what Tolkien did and how. Since I’m not a linguist, I recognize whatever I attempt will still fall rather short of the mark, but it’s a zillion times better than what I had before. Anyhow, in the process I learned a lot and managed to come up with a pair of nearly passable con-langs that gave me enough to name everything on the map and people.

As with anything I work on though, it didn’t stop there. I kept going, building alphabets (check this place out: and complex rules for speaking the language. Between the case endings and made-up words in the second language, there are around 3500 words to pull from. The first of the two languages has considerably fewer words, but provides enough to translate short quotes, which is a fun thing to add into a story. I’m still working on them here and there, mostly when I’m trying to procrastinate. In retrospect, the best thing to have done would have been to learn a second language, and take that experience into the development of a con-lang. You learn loads about ways to deal with conjugation and sentence construction very rapidly. Of course, six or seven years ago when I started this, there wasn’t such a thing as duolingo on your phone, and so it would have been a lot harder than it is now. In the end, the only reason to have these is to rarely interject them into the story, and give some consistency to names, so perhaps it’s all wasted time, but I enjoy it as a creative outlet nonetheless.